S&T Vision documents in India: whose vision and for whom? Perspectives on a recent Current Science paper.
Science and Technology (S&T) are crucial for the progress of any country. Therefore, every country needs to have a vision about what S&T milestones it wishes to reach within a given time-frame. India is no different, and various committees, over the years, have spent substantial time and effort to produce S&T vision documents for the country. However, whose visions are they and who are they meant to serve? In an attempt to engage with these issues, in a recent article published in Current Science, Pankaj Sekhsaria and Naveen Thayyil of IIT-Delhi examine the various S&T vision documents produced in India.
The picture that emerges in their article is dismaying, but hardly surprising. As a representative example, describing the Technology Vision 2035 (TV-2035), the authors point out:
“The vision is mainly created by the techno-scientific bureaucracy. Of the 24 names listed as key contributors, only a couple are from outside the formal S&T architecture of the country. The rest are all serving scientists or bureaucrats in institutions like Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), various Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), former bureaucrats/administrators like former secretaries to the government or former heads of some important S&T establishments. Citizens and the peoplescape that TV-2035 claims to include, appear missing in vision creation and in visioning. If at all they are present, they are present primarily as recipients of the vision, like the one for agriculture explicitly indicates. The agency of citizens and of ‘other’ knowledge systems is conspicuous by its absence, raising concerns about the ability of S&T establishments to conduct such consultative and representative visioning processes even when they are claiming to do so.”
Given the lack of representation of the various stakeholders in the process of formulating these visions, the authors then proceed to ask how thoroughly are these visions examined by the scientific community of India. Considering the pages of Current Science as a representative sample, the authors’ conclusion is: hardly. In their own words:
“Visioning processes in India appear to be characterized by a distinct inability to come up with visions that have wider resonances than what is considered appropriate by the top brass of the techno-scientific establishment. And even this is marked by virtually no debate, discussion and critique from the rest of the S&T community, leave alone from other sections of the society. The processes are dominated by these miniscule (albeit powerful) spaces not only for a S&T vision, but also for visions for a collective future. S&T processes no doubt have an important space, but they can only be one among other key components. If various actors have to come together for formulating visions and suitable S&T trajectories, then the current institutional set up needs to be modified to perform such important tasks.”
The authors do acknowledge that individual scientists have espoused their visions about S&T policies. Thus, their critique is primarily about the lack of engagement of the scientific community with broad-scope vision documents like TV-2035.
This article raises several interesting questions that merit some thoughts.
- It is one thing to say that “the current institutional set up needs to be modified”, but quite another to actually come up with a list of those modifications. Thus, we need prescriptions here, and those prescriptions themselves need to be closely examined and debated.
- If we take the issue of examining such vision documents as a collective, then again, how can it be made sure that such examinations do happen? A journal like Current Science or Dialogue and a forum like Confluence can provide a formal and an informal platform respectively for examining such issues. But would that be sufficient, or do we need something else to make sure that public debates about such policy documents become a way of life?
- Finally, there needs to be an understanding and monitoring of how each vision statement is followed up, whether consecutive vision statements make a continuum, and a sense of how far or near are we to the previously envisioned statement(s). In other words, nurturing a vision to (at least a partial) reality must also be a job for the entire society. Otherwise, these statements would remain discrete feedback-less uni-directionally communicated texts, with little relevance for the society that they are meant to serve.
The above questions are certainly not trivial to resolve. They would require coordinated efforts from various sections of the academic, administrative, social and political establishments as well as everyone who has a stake in S&T progress of this country. By raising them on this platform, we hope to initiate a constructive discussion among these parties.
Sutirth Dey is an Associate Professor of Biology at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune.